Sermon for June 28th, 2020
To the leader: for the flutes. A Psalm of David. 1 Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. 2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray. 3 O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch. 4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you. 5 The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. 6 You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful. 7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house, I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. 8 Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me. 9 For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues. 10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you. 11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you. 12 For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.
Psummer of Psalms - Psalm 5
There is a popular expression we often use for something we perceive is so bad that we say "I wouldn't wish that upon my worst enemy." So I got to thinking, what *would* I wish upon my worst enemy then? Fortunately, there's a meme for that too. Here are the top ten things, according to the all-knowing internet, that most of us actually would be okay with wishing upon our worst enemies.
10. A long life full of tables with uneven legs. 9. Seat back, food on lap, drink in hand...remote control across the room. 8. The polite scorn of a Canadian. 7. A pre-disposition to accidentally hitting "reply-all" on emails. 6. Bountiful amounts of stray legos on the living room floor at midnight. 5. Clamshell packaging on everything. 4. The world's smallest water heater. 3. Open parking spaces that turn out to have tiny cars in them. 2. A fork that always lands in the syrup, and a spoon that always falls in to the bowl. 1. Lots and lots of videos with incorrectly synchronized audio.
Our scripture reading today, Psalm 5, is a prayer of complaint against one's enemies. The instructions at the beginning of the Psalm tell us that it's a Psalm of David--who had plenty of enemies during his lifetime. The instructions also address this Psalm "to the leader." Presumably this is the leader of worship in the temple in ancient Jerusalem. I can identify with that--as a worship leader for First Presbyterian Church, I get a lot of complaints addressed to me; they're usually not as poetic as this psalm, but once someone told me that my sermon reminded her of the peace and love of God. Like God's peace, it was beyond all understanding, and like God's love, it endured forever.
There's one more instruction at the beginning of Psalm 5, which indicates that it was written to be accompanied by flutes. That may strike some of you as a little bit odd for a prayer of complaint against one's enemies, but hold on to that thought--we'll come back to it later.
Psalm 5 begins like so many psalms and prayers, with an invocation, calling upon God's name:
Give ear to my words, O Lord; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
And then in verse three, we get our first real sense of the situation:
O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
Now there are two reasons why you might rise up early in the morning to pray to God. One, because you are amazingly faithful and disciplined in your prayer life. But the other reason is because you couldn't sleep. You were lying awake all night long worrying about your problems.
"In the morning I plead my case to you...and watch." Some translations say "look up" as if in in prayer to God, but I think the NRSV gets it right: The word in Hebrew is צָפָה (tsaphah), not look up, but look out, as in over your shoulder.
Remember, you're not paranoid if they really are coming to get you. Who is coming to get our psalmist? We don't know for sure, but it's probably lawyers, or more specifically, someone who has leveled accusations against the psalmist in court. Verse 5 and 6, "The boastful will not stand before your eyes . . . you destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful." And then later in verse 9, "There is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues." All things relating to words.
Also, remember back in verse 3, the psalmist says "I plead my case to you, God." This is legal terminology, and indicates a pretty substantial lack of faith in the judicial system. If this psalm was indeed written by David, that would make sense for the times in his life when he was an outlaw, when the systems of power and authority were all stacked against him.
It's also worth noting that these are some pretty strong accusations on the Psalmist's part--divisive language that makes us uncomfortable coming from the same Bible where Jesus tells his followers to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
The author of Psalm 5 is certainly praying for something to happen to his enemies, but I don't think it's exactly what Jesus had in mind. And that's something I love about the Psalms. If Jesus is a reflection of who we should aspire to be, the Psalms are often a reflection of who we really are. One is the ending point, and the other is the starting point.
And even in this Psalm, there is a small but perceptible movement in that direction. I like to think of Psalm 5 as a "cooling off" Psalm, or a "1-2-3-timeout" kind of Psalm.
It starts off hot--Lord, please destroy those bloodthirsty, deceitful, evildoers! That kind of prayer may not be ideal, but it's definitely honest, and even if you've never prayed those words, you've probably thought them at some point.
But then comes the turning point in verse seven: "But I." Here's what I will do, in response to my accusers. He doesn't say, "I'm going to go destroy them in the name of God." He doesn't say, "I'm going to say mean things about them like they're saying about me."
"But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house, I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you."
My enemies are all focused intensely on me, but I will not focus on them. I will focus my thoughts on you, God, and your steadfast love." Breathe in...Breathe out...go to church...or write something to your pastor. Remember that next time you're mad. Unless you're mad at your pastor, in which case just skip that last part.
Then the psalmist takes it up a notch in verse 8: "Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me." In other words, for their sake, God, don't let me follow their example. For their sake, God, let me follow yours, so they can follow mine.
And if they still refuse, then (verse 10) "Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels." This is not the same as the psalmist's earlier call for God to utterly destroy them. Instead it's a plea for justice, for karma: Let them see and experience the consequences of their own actions.
And then, having calmed down considerably, the psalmist turns his focus away from his persecutors altogether, and ends his prayer with thankfulness, confidence in God's protection, and even joy in the act of singing and worshiping and loving God.
Verse 11 and 12: But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.
So...I told you we'd come back to the flutes. Why is a Psalm of complaint written to be accompanied by such a specific musical instrument? By the way, this is the only Psalm with that particular instruction, although flutes are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and the Psalms.
There is something soothing about the light and airy tone of the flute, in any of its various incarnations across different times and cultures. Something that has the power to take our anxieties, our anger, and our darkest thoughts, and redirect them toward beauty and love and creation. In the early days of this pandemic, in the midst of our anxiety about Covid19 and shelter-in-place, Bethany Tredway (our guest musician today) picked up her flute, went outside and recorded simple familiar hymns, posting them to her facebook page. To me and many others, those songs were a quiet, calming reminder of God's faithfulness and love.
But there's another aspect of the flute that makes it fitting for this psalm, too. At the high end of its register, the flute cuts across all other instruments, clear and crisp, sometimes even shrill and piercing. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for flutes in this passage, נְּחִיל֗וֹת (nehilot) is derived from an older word, חָלַל (chalal) which means to pierce (probably because of the holes pierced in the instrument, but it's a great coincidence!).
The shrill, piercing sound of the flute is like the shrill, piercing cry for justice that also weaves throughout Psalm 5--not the call for anger or destruction, but the persistent demand for righteousness to prevail. The flute is the only instrument I know that can go back and forth between these particular expressions--soothing and piercing--holding them together in balance, like the Psalm itself does, so that neither is forgotten or eclipsed by the other.
Balance, in the end, is a good thing to strive for in our worship, in our prayers, in our lives. Yes, we often cry out to God in anger, fear or frustration--and that's okay to do. But sometimes through the very act of prayer, God calms our restless hearts, brings us back to our centering point, and reminds us again of the vast and beautiful universe we inhabit. Each of us plays a very small, but very important part in that universe, weaving our voices, our prayers, our songs together with countless others--past, present, and future--in the majestic symphony of God's love and grace.